He is as exasperated with knee-jerk unbelief as he is with unthinking devotion, and has no time for several of the types of atheism he enumerates. All of them look to replace God with some form of secular humanism, science or politics. Their high priests tend to be just as blinkered as the ecclesiastics they abjure, Mr Gray complains: “While atheists may call themselves freethinkers, for many today atheism is a closed system of thought.”
Seven Types of Atheism. By John Gray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 176 pages; $25. Allen Lane; £17.99.
Ever since the Enlightenment, Christianity has been exposed to rigorous examination that has contributed to the decline of organised faith. Though Christian teaching is at the heart of the Western academic tradition, atheism has long been the new gospel for many intellectuals. Some authors have tried to subject it to the same scrutiny that religion has received. But, as polytheistic Romans found in the fourth century, challenging rampant orthodoxies can be tough.
Alister McGrath’s “The Twilight of Atheism” and Nick Spencer’s “Atheists: The Origin of the Species” are excellent critiques; but both writers are Christians, so they have been relatively easy for unbelievers to dismiss. It has taken a prophet seated firmly in an atheist pew to publicise the creed’s contradictions more widely. That prophet is John Gray, a retired professor of philosophy at the London School of Economics. In several books published over 15 years, Mr Gray has reasserted his belief that there is no God, while also attacking the liberal humanism that has emerged in God’s stead—which, he thinks, is as flaky as the religion it has replaced.
At the centre of his argument, in books such as “Straw Dogs” and “The Silence of Animals”, is the assertion that humans are no different from other creatures. Christianity’s “cardinal error” is to say that they are. Yet dispensing with the teachings of monotheism leaves no coherent concept of humanity, nor of human dignity. Mr Gray uses this observation as a launch-pad to criticise “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, and to point out that most modern atheists do not follow their reasoning to its logical conclusion. They may have rejected monotheist beliefs, but they have not shaken off a monotheistic way of thinking, and “regurgitate some secular version of Christian morality”. Mr Gray has a much bleaker view of atheism’s implications: “A truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope.”
In “Seven Types of Atheism” Mr Gray neatly recapitulates his arguments, combining them with a whistle-stop tour of modern unbelief from the Marquis de Sade through to Friedrich Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad. He gives Christianity its due, conceding that not all enlightenment began at the Enlightenment and pointing out the imperfections of that era’s heroes—the racism of Hume, Kant and Voltaire, for instance. Many of the saints of modern liberalism were not as secular as they might seem, he suggests. John Locke’s liberalism is indebted to Christianity at every point; John Stuart Mill’s insistence that morals did not depend on religion “invoked an idea of morality that was borrowed from Christianity”. The new orthodoxy Mill founded was deeply rooted in Christianity, Mr Gray says: “the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”